V. ARCHITECTURE: THE AGE OF BRUNELLESCO

“Cursed be the man who invented this wretched Gothic architecture!” cried Antonio Filarete in 1450; “only a barbarous people could have brought it to Italy.”35 Those walls of glass hardly suited the sun of Italy; those flying buttresses—though at Notre Dame de Paris they had been forged into a frame of beauty, like fountain jets petrified in their flowseemed to the South unsightly scaffoldings left by builders who had failed to give their structures a self-contained stability. The Gothic style of pointed arch and soaring vault had well expressed the aspirations of tender spirits turning from the laborious soil to the solacing sky; but men new dowered with wealth and ease wished now to beautify life, not to escape or malign it; earth would be heaven, and they themselves would be gods.

The architecture of the Italian Renaissance was not basically a revolt against Gothic, for Gothic had never conquered Italy. Every kind of style and influence spoke its piece in the experiments of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries: the heavy columns and round arches of Lombard Romanesque, the Greek cross of some ground plans, the Byzantine pendentive and dome, the stately grace of campaniles echoing Moslem minarets, the slender columns of Tuscan cloisters remembering mosque or classic porticoes, the beamed ceilings of England and Germany, the groined vault and ogive and tracery of Gothic, the harmonious majesty of Roman façades, and, above all, the simple strength of the basilican nave flanked by its supporting aisles: all these, in Italy, were mingling fruitfully when the humanists turned architectural vision to the ruins of Rome. Then the shattered colonnades of the Forum, rising through the medieval mist, seemed to Italian eyes more beautiful than the Byzantine bizarreries of Venice, the somber majesty of Chartres, the fragile audacity of Beauvais, or the mystic reaches of Amiens’ vault. To build again with columns finely turned, firmly mortised into massive plinths, gayly crowned with flowering capitals, and bound to stability by imperturbable architraves—this became, by the groping emergence of the buried but living past, the dream and passion of men like Brunellesco, Alberti, Michelozzo, Michelangelo, and Raphael.

“Of Filippo Brunellesco,” wrote the patriotic Vasari, “it may be said that he was given by heaven to invest architecture with new forms, after it had wandered astray for many centuries.”36 Like so many artists of the Italian Renaissance, he began as a goldsmith. He graduated into sculpture, and for a time entered into friendly rivalry with Donatello. He competed with him and Ghiberti for a commission to sculpture the bronze doors of the Florentine Baptistery; when he saw Ghiberti’s sketches he pronounced them superior to his own, and with Donatello he left Florence to study perspective and design in Rome. He was fascinated by the ancient and medieval architecture there; he measured the major buildings in all their elements; he marveled above all at the dome of Agrippa’s Pantheon, 142 feet wide; and he conceived the idea of crowning with such a dome the unfinished cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in the city of his birth. He returned to Florence in time to take part in a conference of architects and engineers on the problem of roofing the cathedral’s octagonal choir, 138½ feet across. Filippo proposed a dome, but the expansive pressure that so immense a cupola would exert upon walls unsupported by external buttresses or internal beams seemed to the conferees a forbidding obstacle. All the world knows the story of Brunellesco’s egg: how he challenged the other artists to make an egg stand on end, and, after all the rest had failed, himself succeeded by pressing the blunt and empty end down upon the table. When they protested that they could have done the the same, he answered that they would make similar claims after he had domed the cathedral. He received the commission. For fourteen years (1420–34) he labored intermittently at the task, fighting a thousand tribulations, raising the cupola precariously 133 feet above the summit of its supporting walls. At last it was finished, and stood firm; all the city gloried in it as the first major achievement—and with one exception the boldest—in the architecture of the Renaissance. When Michelangelo, a century later, planned the dome of St. Peter’s, and was told that he had an opportunity to surpass Brunellesco’s, he answered: “I will make a sister dome, larger, but not more beautiful.”37 The lordly colorful cupola still dominates, for leagues around, the panorama of a red-roofed Florence nestling like a bed of roses in the lap of the Tuscan hills.

Though Filippo had taken his conception from the Pantheon, he had compromised gracefully with the Tuscan Gothic style of the Florentine cathedral by curving his dome along the lines of the Gothic pointed arch. But in buildings that he was allowed to design from the ground he made his classic revolution more explicit and complete. In 1419 he had begun, for Cosimo’s father, the church of San Lorenzo; he finished only the “Old Sacristy”; but there he chose the basilican form, the colonnade and entablature, and the Romanesque arch as the elements of his plan. In the cloisters of Santa Croce he built for the Pazzi family a pretty chapel again recalling the dome and colonnaded portico of the Pantheon; and in those same cloisters he designed a rectangular portal—of fluted columns, flowered capitals, sculptured architrave, and lunette reliefs—which formed the style of a hundred thousand Renaissance doors, and survives everywhere in western Europe and America. He began on classic lines the church of Santo Spirito, but died while the walls had barely left the ground. In 1446 the corpse of the passionate builder lay in state in the cathedral under the dome that he had raised; and from Cosimo to the simple workingman who had labored there the people of Florence came to mourn that geniuses must die. “He lived as a good Christian,” said Vasari, “and left to the world the savor of his goodness…. From the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans until now there has been no man more rare or more excellent.”38

In his architectural enthusiasm Brunellesco had designed for Cosimo a palace so extensive and ornate that the modest dictator, fearing envy, denied himself the luxury of seeing it take form. Instead he commissioned Michelozzo di Bartolommeo (1444) to build for him, his family, and his offices, the existing Palazzo Medici or Riccardi, whose thick stone walls, bare of ornament, reveal the social disorder, the family feuds, the daily dread of violence or revolt, that gave a zest to Florentine politics. Immense iron gates opened to friends and diplomats, artists and poets, access to a court decorated with. statuary by Donatello, and thence to rooms of moderate splendor, and a chapel brightened by the stately and colorful frescoes of Benozzo Gozzoli. There the Medici lived till 1538, with interludes of banishment; but surely they often left those gloomy walls to take the sun at the villas that Cosimo built outside the city in Careggi and Cafaggiolo, and on the slopes of Fiesole. It was in those rural retreats that Cosimo and Lorenzo, with their friends and protégés, took refuge from politics in poetry, philosophy, and art; and to Careggi father and grandson retired for their rendezvous with death. Glancing now and then beyond the grave, Cosimo gave substantial sums to raise an abbey at Fiesole, and to rebuild more commodiously the old convent of San Marco. There Michelozzo designed graceful cloisters, a library for Niccoli’s books, and a cell where, occasionally, Cosimo withdrew even from his friends, and spent a day in meditation and prayer.

In these enterprises Michelozzo was his favorite architect and the unfailing friend who accompanied him into exile, and returned with him. Soon thereafter the Signory gave Michelozzo the delicate task of reinforcing the Palazzo Vecchio against threatened collapse. He restored the church of Santissima Annunziata, made a lovely tabernacle for it, and showed himself a sculptor too by adorning it with a statue of St. John the Baptist. For Cosimo’s son Piero he built a magnificent marble chapel in the hillside church of San Miniato. He pooled his skill with Donatello’s to design and carve the charming “pulpit of the girdle” on the façade of the Prato cathedral. In any other country in that age Michelozzo would have led his architectural tribe.

Meanwhile the merchant aristocracy was raising proud civic halls and palaces. In 1376 the Signory commissioned Benci di Cione and Simone di Francesco Talenti to build a portico opposite the Palazzo Vecchio as a rostrum for governmental oratory; in the sixteenth century it came to be known as the Loggia dei Lanzi from the German lancers that Duke Cosimo I stationed there. The most magnificent private palace in Florence was built (1459) for the banker Luca Pitti by Luca Fancelli from plans made by Brunellesco nineteen years before. Pitti was almost as rich as Cosimo, but not so wisely modest; he contested Cosimo’s power, and drew from him some sharp counsel:

You strive toward the indefinite, I toward the definite. You plant your ladder in the air, I place mine on the ground…. It seems to me but just and natural that I should desire the honor and reputation of my house to surpass yours. Let us therefore do like two big dogs, which sniff at one another when they meet, show their teeth, and then go their separate ways. You will attend to your affairs, I to mine.39

Pitti continued to plot; after Cosimo’s death he conspired to displace Piero de’ Medici from power. He committed the only crime universally condemned in the Renaissance—he failed. He was banished and ruined, and his palace remained unfinished for a century.

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